MLB.com started ranking prospects back in 2004. Since that time, between preseason rankings and, more recently, midseason updates, a total of 16 players have been ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball.
If we were to rank those 16 prospects, based on the hype surrounding them when they were ranked No. 1, what would that look like? But as we know, not all top prospects are created equal, so what we are trying to do is look at how the top guys stack up against each other when weighing the relative expectations placed on each of them when they were prospects.
As you’ll see below, there are some rankings that will surprise you, but many top prospects fall short of (or even exceed) the promise that comes with being baseball’s top ranked prospect. It’s very subjective and there were some serious challenges in terms of comparing prospects from different time periods.
There were definite biases around recency and big league success that had to be pushed aside. And there’s no question that the hype machine these days is so much louder than it used to be thanks to the proliferation of prospect coverage and, of course, social media platforms.
Trying to keep that in mind while answering the simple question of, “Who was the best prospect at the time?,” here is the ranking of all of MLB.com’s No. 1 overall prospects (with years they were No. 1 in parentheses).
1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays (2018 midseason, 2019 preseason)
The hype for Vlad Jr. certainly was deafening, but it was for good reason. He’s the first prospect we ever gave an 80 hit grade to, and he graduated from the Minors with a .331/.414/.531 slash line to back up the lofty score.
2. Shohei Ohtani, RHP/OF, Angels (2018 preseason)
We’d never seen anything like him before and while his time as a prospect was short-lived, his abilities on both sides of the ball puts him near the very top of this list. He would’ve been the No. 1 prospect just as a pitcher and likely would’ve been top 10 as an outfielder.
3. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins (preseason 2014-15; midseason 2013-15)
While he hasn’t yet -- emphasis on yet -- lived up to expectations, there is no question everyone was enthralled with Buxton’s five-tool package as a prospect. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 Draft was our No. 1 prospect for five straight rankings, from the midseason 2013 list through the midseason list in 2015, dropping to No. 2 at the start of 2016.
4. Delmon Young, OF, Rays (preseason 2005-07)
Young was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 Draft and had all the hype that goes along with being selected there. He was our No. 1 prospect three years in a row and was a two-time Futures Game participant before arriving in the big leagues at age 20 in 2006. He had some moments in the big leagues, including finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2007, 10th in MVP voting with the Twins in 2010 and taking home an ALCS MVP Award in 2012 with the Tigers.
5. Mike Trout, OF, Angels (preseason 2011)
This was a tough one not to use some revisionist history on. Because of who he’s become in the big leagues, the temptation was to run him up higher on the list. But while he was obviously well-regarded, he was only ranked No. 1 once and was ranked No. 3 behind Matt Moore (see below) and Bryce Harper in 2012.
6. Joe Mauer, C, Twins (preseason 2004)
Our very first No. 1 prospect (insert nostalgic sigh here). Mauer, of course, was the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, taken by his hometown Twins and was considered to be among the top prospects in the game throughout his climb to Minnesota before turning in a Hall of Fame caliber career that included six All-Star Games, an AL MVP, five Silver Slugger Awards and three Gold Gloves.
7. Wander Franco, SS, Rays (midseason 2019, preseason 2020)
He’s yet to play above A ball, so he could spend some time atop our rankings. That said, he also could move quickly, a la Vlad Jr., after a .327/.398/.487 year across two levels in 2019. The second prospect to get an 80 hit grade, Franco could reach Tampa Bay by age 20, even if the 2020 season is a wash.
8. Yoan Moncada, 2B, White Sox (midseason 2017)
Moncada became a top prospect the second the Red Sox signed him for $31.5 million in March 2016, and he debuted at No. 7 on the 2016 preseason list. He then sat at No. 2 for two straight lists, even while getting traded to the White Sox, before sliding into the top spot for the midseason Top 100 in 2017, shortly before graduating off the list.
9. David Price, LHP, Rays (preseason 2009)
Price made it up to the big leagues so quickly, he almost didn’t get his due as a prospect. He was the slam-dunk choice to be the No. 1 pick in the 2007 Draft and he debuted at No. 11 on the Top 50 in 2008, the year he ended with his eye-opening turn out of the Rays' bullpen in the playoffs. He catapulted to the top spot before the next season, but graduated off that year.
10. Matt Moore, LHP, Rays (preseason 2012)
In retrospect, it might seem ridiculous to have ranked Moore ahead of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper before the 2012 season. But at the time, he was clearly the top pitching prospect in the game, one who had shown 100-mph heat in the 2011 Futures Game a year after leading the Minors with over 200 strikeouts. He did make the 2013 All-Star Team, but injuries kept him from living up to his promise.
11. Alex Bregman, SS/3B, Astros (midseason 2016)
Another prospect who moved too quickly through the Minors to get his prospect ranking due, Bregman was the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft and was in the big leagues just over a year later. He had debuted at No. 27 on the midseason 2015 list, moved up to 22 to start 2016, then briefly ascended to the top spot because of his huge first full season in the Minors.
12. Andrew Benintendi, OF, Red Sox (preseason 2017)
The Red Sox’s first-round pick in 2015, Benintendi made his first Top 100 appearance at No. 74 the summer after he was drafted. He was in the top 10 by the midseason 2016 list and became the No. 1 prospect prior to the start of 2017 after his strong MLB debut in 2016 and before going on to finish second in 2017 AL Rookie of the Year Award voting.
13. Jason Heyward, OF, Braves (preseason 2010)
Heyward might get more attention for his defensive prowess (five Gold Gloves) and yes, his contract, but back before the start of the 2010 season, he was considered by many to be the top prospect in the game. Atlanta had drafted him in the first round of the 2007 Draft in their own backyard and the homegrown kid put up impressive numbers in the Minors before debuting in Atlanta in 2010 and finishing second in ROY voting.
14. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers (preseason 2016)
The Dodgers nabbed Seager in the first round of the 2012 Draft and he put up monster numbers in the Minors in 2014 and '15, which led to his huge big league debut in ’15 (.337/.425/.561). That led to him landing in the top spot before the 2016 season began after ranking behind Byron Buxton the year prior.
15. Jurickson Profar, SS, Rangers (midseason 2012, preseason 2013)
While Profar has spent the last two seasons as an everyday, power-hitting second baseman in the big leagues, he was a shortstop phenom coming up through the Rangers' system and was universally thought to be the top prospect in baseball heading into the 2013 season, with an intriguing power-speed combination for an up-the-middle player.
16. Jay Bruce, OF, Reds (preseason 2008)
Part of a huge 2005 Draft that included high schoolers like Justin Upton (No. 1 pick), Cameron Maybin (10) and Andrew McCutchen (11), Bruce ranked ahead of Maybin and McCutchen on the 2008 Top 50 after a huge 2007 season that saw him hit .319 with 26 homers across three levels of the Minors.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.